A Guy Called Gerald Interview: Electronic Voodoo

Mark Dale spoke to the man behind some of the most defining dance music records ever produced in Manchester to talk about his influences, the early days and the city.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 27th Aug 2015

Images: A Guy Called Gerald

Gerald Simpson was always an inquisitive kid. He just had that kind of mind. As a youngster he was fascinated with technology, he would break into the family's stereo to investigate how it worked and would go to the tip to find old radios that he would take home to bring to life.

Having grown up in Moss Side, then a very musically active suburb of Manchester just outside the city centre, Gerald's analytical mind led him to trying to unlock the production secrets of the drum machine and synthesizer sounds present in the early 1980s. He would take other people's tunes apart in his head, just as he had done with his mum's stereo, and rebuild them with his own equipment.

He has been either solely or partly responsible for arguably the two most important pieces of dance music ever produced in Manchester. The first was his own 'Voodoo Ray', issued as A Guy Called Gerald. The second was 'Pacific State', which he recorded as part of 808 State alongside Graham Massey and Martin Price (with whom he also recorded debut 808 State LP Newbuild and the EP Quadrastate).

These two tracks, both issued in 1988, define Manchester's contribution to the the early dance music scene in the UK, a far more underground and finessed sound than was being issued nationally at that time. They are two records whose longevity attests to their worth and were just as important a part of the Madchester sound as anything produced by The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays or Inspiral Carpets.

After entering into litigation with the record company that released 'Voodoo Ray', Gerald became guarded against being burned again and not long after when 'Pacific State' became his next big hit, perceived disrespect in the way he was being dealt with in 808 State lead to his departure. 

Since that time, he has never chased the sounds of 'Voodoo Ray' or 'Pacific State'. He has instead embarked on a journey of endless musical adventure and experimentation, constantly striving to express himself in a new way rather than trying to make another hit. That journey has involved the production of well regarded and highly influential contributions to the UK drum n' bass music and has lead to him now operating solely as a live producer of music.

His debut 808 State LP Newbuild and a collection of Gerald era 808 State demos Prebuild were reissued by fan Richard James aka Aphex Twin on the label he co-runs Rephlex in 2004. Mark Dale caught up with Gerald himself prior to his acid focused gig at South in Manchester on on Friday 18th September.  

There were quite a lot of clubs playing soul music and reggae in Moss Side when you were growing up. You were probably too young to go to many of them but do you remember them?

I used to go to The Reno and there used to be these other like youth club places. But I suppose the music they played there seemed a lot more mature than what you'd hear in places like that today, you know how they play poppy stuff now? The kids love the chart stuff. It wasn't like that.

Pre-electrofunk, in 1981 and 1982, we were listening to jazz funk, funk and soul. At The Reno you'd hear DJs like Hewan Clarke and Moses. I can't remember the other guy. We used to go to Longsight Old Library too. Back then, the emphasis was more on the dance than it was the DJs. I remember the names of the dancers better than I do the names of the DJs, because they were kinda famous back then. The famous crew were The Jazz Defectors, but there were others. We used to go all over the place with them, to alldayers in Preston, Birmingham and they'd challenge other crews.

The DJs who were playing jazz funk and jazz to dancers like that at the time were people like Colin Curtis and Mike Shaft, who came from a soul background. But another sound that got its first airing on that all-dayer scene and around that time was electrofunk, from people like Greg Wilson. Do you remember the point when that sound started to arrive?

Yeah. I remember hearing it on the radio first. I can't remember if it was Chad Jackson or Mike Shaft who I first heard play it. It blew me away. I was into electronic stuff anyway, anything with a synth, Vangelis, Tubeway Army. But that electro stuff was introduced as something new from America and Planet Rock was like the pinnacle. From then on I was hooked.

I'd been buying records since the jazz funk days and one of the first I'd bought was 'Tap Step' by Chick Corea (below). On the back of the sleeve it listed all the instruments he played. I was so interested in how this stuff was being made and I remember looking on the back at the list of keyboards he played and then going down to A1 Music in Manchester with my brother every week and seeing the same keyboards there. Loads of Moogs.

The owners of the shop were Tony and Anne. They'd keep an eye on us at first, we thought they just wanted us to get out of the shop. All the synths were downstairs, guitars upstairs and we'd spend hours in there, intrigued by these synths. I remember it well, it was damp and smelled of patchouli. We'd be there trying to imitate Chick Corea and once you've played around on the machine, you'd appreciate it in a different way when you went back to listening to the record. 

By the time I heard Planet Rock I was trying to piece together in my mind how it had been put together. All the soul and funk tunes before it were being made with the same drum machine. And, in the very same shop, I found a 909, a DMX and then someone sold them an 808. I didn't know what it was, but when I heard it I was like 'Oh my God. That's that machine. It's on everything' Somehow I went out of my way to get it. I never wanted something so bad in all my life. 

So the first things you were trying to make at home were electro things?

Yeah. We started this group called Scratch Beatmasters and we had these scratch routines worked out. I'd gone to see Herbie Hancock do Rockit at The Apollo and he had Gandmixer DST with him. I just had my eye on him, seeing how he was making that scratch noise. I went straight back home onto my mum's Amstrad console and tried to do it. That's what it was like back then, listen or see something, then try and recreate it at home.

Did you break your mum's belt drive trying to scratch on it?

[laughs] I did more than break the belt drive, I broke everything on that and anything like it in the house, but I always used to patch it up. I was ripping stuff apart from when there were still old valves in stuff.

After the electro, do you remember the first time you heard house music?

I can't remember the specific track, but it was played to me by one of my mates. I was like 'hang on a minute, this is the same beat all the way through?' because in electro there were all these different syncopations and beats. But this stuff was really straight. I couldn't figure out how they were getting away with it! Once I started listening to it I realised it was using all the same equipment that I had. By that time I had an SH101, a 303, a TR606 and an 808. The acid house things I heard sounded really easy, I knew I could do that. Some of the more complex ones like Ten City, I knew I was going to need a polysynth. So I did a little trek around and managed to get a Juno 106. After I first heard house music I was making it within a week.

I started sending demos to Picadilly Radio and Stu Allan would play them. I think he was surprised that the sound was so similar to what was coming from America compared to the stuff everyone else here was making. They were trying to make acid sounds using digital gear. It was way too clean. They didn't get the thing about it being dirty. Because of the equipment I was using, I didn't really have a choice.

Would it be fair to say that at that time you were more interested in spending what money you could get on buying equipment rather than on buying records?

Yeah. I'd bought records in the early 80s, but by 1985 I wanted to build my own studio. Everyone else from Scratch Beatmasters wanted to DJ. I'd had enough of that. We only had two turntables and there was too many of us. I'd always been the one who was more interested in how the production happened, back from the days of listening to Chick Corea. I started to realise it was within my grasp. We'd added drum machines to our performing set, for when we'd challenge other crews. That was our secret weapon and I was the one controlling it. I started buying guitar pedal effects and plugging them into the 808, putting reverb on the snare or flange on the hi hat.

After sending your demos to Stu Allan the first thing you became known for was 'Voodoo Ray' (above). With the vocal that's on there it's clearly not a bedroom recorded sound. How did that come about?

The first thing I released on vinyl was a little hip hop thing as The Hit Squad, with MC Tunes, but the second thing was 'Voodoo Ray'. That was my first record as A Guy Called Gerald. A friend of mine, Anif Cousins, did some work with this label from New Brighton, Rham Records. The guy there had heard my stuff on the radio and was really interested in doing one of these house tracks for their label. He offered me some studio time. 

I got four or five tracks ready and we had a day to record them. One of them was an R&B, SOS Band style soul track, so I brought Nicola along to the studio to sing that. The rest of them were really raw, underground acid things. It was the first time I'd been in a recording studio, a proper one, and I was instantly hooked. I loved the sound of the place, the smell, everything.

The engineer was so cool. The first thing he said was 'if you've got any questions just ask', so straight away I was like 'what's this? what's that? what does this do?' While I was working I was learning. One of the things I'd always been interested in from reading technology magazines was this thing called the sampler, but it was way out of my league. I'd only dreamed about such things, but they had one there. I said 'how much would it be to use that?' and the engineer said 'oh no, it's part of the studio equipment, knock yourself out.'

After recording two tracks and putting the beat down for 'Voodoo Ray' I had a little play around with it. Nicola was waiting to do the vocals on the soul tune and I thought 'what if she sings something into the sampler?' I got her to sing this little riff I'd been doing on the keyboard, sampled a bit of it and was messing round with it, trying some tricks.

But I found that if I just left her vocal on its own, along with what I'd already put there, I'd get this really hypnotic effect. With the drums, I'd recorded everything seperately to tape, painstakingly getting rid of all the hiss and using gates and compression. I added layers and layers of treatment. It was basically just experimentation, my schooling in how to work in a recording studio. To this day I still work in the same way, although I use computers.

I gave the tracks to Rham and they liked four of them, so they were going to put an EP out. They sold out the initial press in a couple of weeks, so they went to repress and were starting to get really excited by it because it was doing so much. I wasn't that interested. By then, I just wanted to be in the studio.  

Were you surprised with the reception it got?

Kinda. It didn't seem at the time that there was so many people that were into house music, it was an underground thing. I was surprised it had entered into that system, but I was too engrossed with my own system to get dragged into it all. I just wanted to be in the studio, experimenting, making new stuff. 

I started to approach it all with the same kind of intensity a bit later, out of necessity. Even the legal side of it. The first two tracks, 'Voodoo Ray' and 'Pacific State', taught me about the litigation system.

Did you manage to take the ownership of 'Voodoo Ray' back to yourself?

Yeah. I'd done a license deal with Rham. After the Hot Lemonade album it reverted back to me. I had some management problems because the guy wanted to manage me as well as run the record label and that was a conflict of interests. He'd done a sub license to Warlock Records, which I thought was really cool, and I ended up going to America for the first time and touring with Warlock. 

Then I was running between the 808 State thing and A Guy Called Gerald, without 808 State at first knowing that I was A Guy Called Gerald. I didn't want them to know at first because I wanted to see if they were gonna treat me ok whatever and I didn't want my rep as A Guy Called Gerald to affect anything. Didn't want to put all my eggs in one basket. 

Right from the early days I was wary of that. I'd send my own tapes to myself by recorded delivery, before I gave them to anybody else, and not open them, like a poor man's version of copywriting. I'd always been wary of sharks from the electrofunk days, because there'd been this guy who put out some quite famous compilations who was going round asking people for demos. People were getting ripped off. By the time I realised what kind of tricks people would be getting up to, I think I was very guarded and backing away from it all.

How did you first come into contact with the 808 State guys?

Martin Price was one of the people running this record shop, Eastern Bloc. I went there as part of the Scratch Beatmasters, we'd done this demo at The Kitchen in Hulme. We played it to them and they wanted to put it out as part of a joint release with these other kids from Altrincham. They liked the track, but wanted something re-doing and somewhere along the line me, Martin and Graham Massey ended up in a studio together. I told them I had all this equipment at home, so I'd go and bring it to the studio on Tariff Street and we'd do little jams. That kinda stuff I'd previously kept it to myself, I'd do it on a Sunday, these tapes for Picadilly radio. I didn't think it would be of much interest as that acid house thing was so niche at the time. 

They were starting to get a lot more of that stuff in Eastern Bloc and interest started picking up. They realised I had more to offer than just the Scratch Beatmasters thing and it all seemed to come together. The Scratch Beatmasters and the guys from Altricham kinda got forgotten about, which I felt bad about because they were my mates, but I was just focussed on the studio. We ended up getting a few gigs.

Just as the vocal in 'Voodoo Ray' was a very distinct element that set it apart from a lot of the Chicago stuff that had influenced it, the alto sax used in 'Pacific State' (above) set that apart from other records at the time. But underneath that, Pacific State sounds a lot more like a Detroit record to me than it does a Chicago record. 

At the time I was taking all that stuff in. Every track had its different inspiration. 'Pacific State' was originally called Day Ride and the original inspiration for it was Good Life (Inner City). Not the vocals, obviously. They'd sampled a chord and played it back on single keys, that's how they'd made it and when I heard that I always wanted to do it. So, when I got in the studio i sampled a chord for a string sound and played it back. Everything was built around that.

Other people's songs were like my raw material. I'd pull them apart in my head and use what they'd done, all the different techniques, as inspiration for my tracks. It wasn't like sampling or doing remakes, it was inspiration. 

Voodoo Ray, the technique for the bassline was taken from The Sound by Kevin Saunderson. It was subharmonic but atonal. I used three basslines and kinda detuned some things and that was created to make a dynamic in the track. The way they fitted each other it almost sounded like they were clanging together, like something metallic, but it's all audio illusions. 

What kind of time period are we talking about between you recording 'Voodoo Ray' and you recording 'Pacific State'?

Erm.... I can't remember, because the whole time I was basically working. If I wasn't at home I would have been in one of the three studios where I was working in Manchester at the time. It was probably two or three months.

Do you think the legal problems you'd had over 'Voodoo Ray' put you in a position where, when you had another hit on your hands with 'Pacific State', you very much had your guard up and you were wary of it happening again?

Yeah, for sure. Before they knew I was A Guy Called Gerald there was already a bit of messing around going on. I think Martin Price thought ok, he's some kid, he's on the dole, he's never gonna be able to come back at us. I don't really know what he was thinking, but I think he was a bit scared when he found out I was pursuing (the 'Voodoo Ray' litigation) and that I had means to pursue. 

Since you left 808 State you've come back together with Graham Massey to do some live shows that were instigated by the Rephlex reissue of the debut 808 State album Newbuild and the release of an album of demos from that period Prebuild. How did you get back in touch with Graham again?

We've always been in touch, on and off, over the years because whenever someone wanted to use 'Pacific State' for something they had to ask everybody's permission. So we had to keep in contact over that. There was this party called Wang, a promoter called Nathan and I think it was run by some friends of Richard James. They had the idea of me and Graham getting together and doing this Newbuild type thing. 

Were you surprised that Rephlex wanted to reissue Newbuild and the Prebuild material?

No, not really. My distributor was getting calls from some guy who wanted to speak to me in the early 1990s and that was Richard. Eventualy he got hold of me and said 'I want to try and get you and Graham Massey in a room and lock you in there with a load of drum machines and synths' I thought 'Fucking weirdo! Who is that?' Years later we went down to his place and did a jam, so he was determined. He was really into Newbuild. For a long time. I think he kind of grew up on that sound. 

How was it working with Graham again?

Oh cool. It's nice working with someone who's got both technical nous and an imagination. Most people you work with they seem to have a fixed idea of a song they want to sound like or a person they want to be, but with Graham it's an adventure. That's what I'm all about in the studio. 

Do you think there's a chance you might work together again in a studio?

It's possible. A lot of the stuff I do nowadays I don't actually do for release. In the old school ways, in the 90s, we used to record tracks with a view to putting them out on vinyl, cd or whatever. It's just not usual that I would do that anymore. If I was to work with someone now they'd probably ask 'well, what are we doing this for?'

What I do now is I produce music that I can perform live more than anything, so it's a different way of working. I feel that if I make music and put it into the industry now, into that machine, it just kind of dissolves. So nowadays, if I want to get new ideas across, for me the best way of doing that is by performing live. But with Graham it's good, but we live in different cities, sometimes different countries.

You can catch Gerald playing a 90s acid party set at South next month for ThirdEye

Like this? Try Dave Haslam Interview: People were having mad nights out 100 years ago

Tickets are no longer available for this event